Austria’s unique coalition vows to tackle climate change, extend Muslim headscarf ban

A deal between conservatives and Greens to form a governing coalition in Austria includes banning headscarves in school until the age of 14 and preventive custody for potentially dangerous individuals.

The measures are part of what the right-wing People’s Party Leader Sebastian Kurz describes as his tough stance on illegal immigration and “political Islam,” aimed at appealing to his base but also to disillusioned former supporters of the far right, whose coalition with his party collapsed in May.

The agreement, whose details the parties outlined on Thursday, also contains concessions to the Greens’ environmentalist demands, including raising taxes on flights out of Austria.

The deal reached on Wednesday will allow Kurz to hold office as chancellor and will bring the Greens to power for the first time.

At a news conference with Green Party Leader Werner Kogler, Kurz called the agreement “the best of both worlds.”

It includes raising the age until which girls are banned from wearing a headscarf in school to 14 from around 10, an extension of a policy introduced under Kurz’s last coalition with the far right.

It also includes reviving a disputed plan for preventive custody of potentially dangerous individuals even if they have not committed a crime, which was put forward under the previous coalition after a fatal stabbing apparently committed by an asylum seeker in February.

Greens in, at a price

Such measures will be hard for many Green Party supporters to swallow. The coalition deal must still be approved by the Greens’ top decision-making body, the Federal Council, on Saturday.

While few expect the Federal Council to block the deal, immigration and security are likely to be constant sources of friction within the coalition.

Kurz stressed that migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be taken to “safe countries of origin, third countries or transit countries if they are safe.” He insisted that efforts to distribute migrants within Europe have failed.

While Kurz has insisted on keeping his trademark hard line on immigration, the Greens have called for a fiscal overhaul to make products and services with a large carbon footprint more expensive.

“Flying will, slightly but still … become more expensive,” Kogler said. “In the medium term also, taking the train will become cheaper.”

The current tax on flights out of Austria, which varies depending on the flight distance, will be replaced by a flat rate of 12 euros ($17.40 Cdn) per passenger. The existing road toll for trucks will also increase for the most polluting vehicles.

A more thorough review on establishing “price truth” in carbon emissions will be carried out and then measures implemented step by step from 2022, the plan said.

Kogler said he wants Austria to be carbon-neutral in 2040, 10 years before the European Union’s target.

He noted the prospect of the new coalition having a “role model effect” in Europe and standing for the “reconciliation of ecology and economy, embedding social security.”

Out with Freedom 

The new coalition results from a snap September election in which Kurz’s party emerged as by far the biggest in the national legislature and the Greens made strong gains to return to parliament after a two-year absence.

The election was triggered by the collapse in May of Kurz’s previous coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party. Kurz pulled the plug following the release of a video showing then-Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache offering favours to a purported Russian investor.

Parliament then ousted Kurz in a no-confidence vote. Austria has since been run by a non-partisan interim government under Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein.

Besides Kurz and Kogler, the People’s Party will have 10 ministers in the new cabinet and the Greens three. The Greens will run a ministry responsible for the environment, climate and transport; the justice ministry; and the health and social affairs ministry.

Kurz said there will be more women than men in the new team.

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